February in Arizona is lovely…and surprisingly cold for the desert. Being from Ohio, I just assumed that Arizona stayed in the 70s while Ohio dropped into the single digits, but as luck would have it, Ohio hit 75 degrees while we were shivering at the Grand Canyon in the 35 degree afternoon sun. Further south it was warmer of course, but we started our 5 day road trip through Arizona in the northern part, up on the Colorado Plateau where the elevation is goes above 7000 ft in some places, creating chilly days and cold nights.
We actually started our trip in Las Vegas, solely because it’s fairly cheap to fly to from Cleveland. We got in late Thursday night and after a huge hassle trying to get to the hotel (turns out Vegas hotels don’t do free airport shuttles like every other airport I’ve been through), we were finally able to get some sleep before getting up early for our trip.
We didn’t want to make the same mistake of taking a very expensive shuttle service to the rent-a-car place in the morning, so for the first time in our young lives we took an Uber. The lady who picked us up was an older lady, and after talking to her for a few minutes we found out she too was from Ohio and her daughter had actually attended the same Girl Scout camp as Sierra, my friend and current travelling companion. It really is a small world!
After the whole ordeal of getting our rental car, we were on our way. Our first stop was Lake Mead, specifically the Hoover Dam, but we also wanted to get some information for camping on our way back through and get our national park passport books stamped. The volunteers working the desk were friendly and extremely helpful. We did a little bit too much shopping at the bookstore perhaps, but that’s ok. We bought two tiny rubber bison which we decided would make into our travelling companions along the way by taking pictures of them at our stops.
Unfortunately the camera didn’t seem to want to focus on both the bison and the background, but that’s ok.
After our stop at the Lake Mead visitor center we made a short stop at the Hoover Dam. I had been there before but Sierra hadn’t, we had a lot of driving ahead of us so we didn’t stay long.
Our next stop was the Grand Canyon. I had been there once before on a family vacation but only for a few hours on our way to Las Vegas. That trip had consisted of stopping at a couple viewpoints and the visitor center before going on our merry way…the way the typical tourist “does the Grand Canyon.”
This time our visit consisted of much of the same itinerary: stop at the view points and the visitor center. In our defense, it was already getting late in the day and we still had a several hour drive to our campsite for the night. February at the Grand Canyon was great. It was in the 30s that day and there were spots of snow along the north facing canyon wall. The Grand Canyon is always busy whether it be February or June, but at least it was a little less busy in February than if we had been there in the middle of the summer, smothered by RVs and selfie sticks.
We had prepared a little bit for our trip by paying attention to where the nights would be a little bit warmer since we were camping. We had opted to drop off the Colorado Plateau down to areas lower in elevation. Our first night of camping was at Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix. We got in late, well after dark. We could see the silhouette of saguaro cacti lining the road on the way in, our first time seeing such huge cacti.
Despite getting in late and finding that one of the poles on my new tent was slightly broken, it didn’t take long to set up camp. I even had a chance to take a couple of star photos before we fell asleep.
The next morning we were sure to get up early with the intent to watch the sunrise. Instead we ended up searching the nearest town for a Starbucks in order to get a warm drink to help us wake up on a cold morning. I’m not usually a huge fan of Starbucks ( I don’t drink coffee and their hot cocoa is a bit pricey for me), but we probably went to Starbucks more times on this trip than all of the other times I’ve been their combined. Next we started on an early morning hike, finally getting to get up close and personal with our new favorite cactus species.
I don’t remember what trail we were on exactly, but we wove through saguaros, mesquite and other desert vegetation and climbed up in elevation until we had a great view of the towering rocks above us and the campground and surrounding town below us.
After our hike we set off for our next adventure: Tonto National Monument. We opted for what looked like the scenic route (from the map it was much windier, but overall less miles than taking the highway). We ended up first at a large reservoir, surrounding by towering rocks. From there, the road turned from pavement to gravel and hard packed dirt. We were a little concerned about the rental car, but we decided to continue forward unless it became undriveable to our baby car. Luckily, it remained a well maintained two wheel drive road for the entire 30-some remaining miles of hills and switchbacks. We were beyond relieved when we finally saw asphalt again. From there it was only a few short miles to the National Monument.
It was a steep 1/2 mile trail to the lower cliff dwellings. The views from the trail were amazing as were the dwellings themselves.
Built by the Salado people over 700 years ago, it’s amazing how strong these walls still stand. Much of the credit goes to good builders and an arid climate.
From their we headed off to Catalina State Park for our next night of camping. We had plenty of time to hike several of the trails in the park and finished up as the sun was setting.
After our hikes we decided we had earned a good warm meal and headed into town for Mexican food. We found that practically across the street from the state park was a Walmart so were were also able to stock up on some things we had forgotten. The fact that we were less than two miles from the epitome of modern civilization and yet still had no cell service at our campsite kind of baffled us.
The next morning we finished up a few more short hikes before heading off to Saguaro National Park. We started in the east unit of the park, enjoying the scenic drive and a short hike with threat of rain in the distance. Followed by a rather unorganized trek to find lunch in Houston before stopping by the western unit then heading back up to Phoenix where we had a hotel for the night.
Along the way we made a pit stop as Case Grande Ruins National Monument and became Junior Rangers!
The next morning we got up early. Sierra had an interview, which was technically the real reason for being in Arizona. After the interview we continued our road trip, making stops at Montezuma Castle National Monument and Tuzigoot National Monument.
After stopping at Tuzigoot, we had to make our way back to Las Vegas for our flight the next day. As navigator, I had made the mistake once again of wanting to take the scenic route back. We ended up in the mountains, on yet another windy road, and to top it all off it started to snow. Driving through the mountains in a snow storm was not what we had anticipated for our Arizona road trip.
Thankfully, we survived and made it into Las Vegas with enough time to walk around the strip and actually people watch and do a bit of souvenir shopping. Overall, we ended up agreeing that we enjoyed the light of the stars and the company of the cactus as opposed to the artificial lights and crowds of people, but it was part of our adventure nonetheless!